GREENSBORO, N.C. – With an exemption to the Wyndham Championship on the line, a trio of players had at least a share of the lead as they stood on the 18th tee box Friday at the American Junior Golf Association’s FootJoy Invitational. Only one of those three players managed to par the 507-yard par 4 at Sedgefield Country Club, and that par sealed the victory for 16-year-old Tanner Kesterson of Plano, Texas.
Playing in the second-to-last group, Kesterson and defending champion Justin Thomas of Goshen, Ky., were tied with Anthony Paolucci of Del Mar, Calif., at 9-under-par with one hole to play. Kesterson withstood the pressure and found the fairway with his drive, then hit his 200-yard approach to 15 feet.
“Coming up No.18, my main goal was to be relaxed,” said Kesterson, who posted a 9-under-par total with his routine par. “I had no clue where I was. I knew I had to be within a shot though.”
Thomas, on the other hand, found the rough with his drive and then missed the green. When he failed to save par, the defending champion fell a shot short and finished at 8-under-par.
“I birdied No. 18 the last two days so I had good thoughts, but it just didn't turn out so well,” said Thomas, who made the cut at the 2009 Wyndham Championship after winning the 2009 FootJoy Invitational. “After I hit it in front of the green I figured I'd just get up-and-down and if Tanner missed, I'd try to knock mine in. It just didn't happen.”
While Kesterson was two-putting on No. 18, Paolucci rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 17 for his fourth birdie in his last five holes. The first-round co-leader had regained the top spot on the leaderboard and was 10-under-par with one hole remaining.
But for the champion of the AJGA’s Thunderbird International Junior in May, the ending at this Invitational was much different. After violently hooking his drive on No. 18, Paolucci was forced to punch out and had a hybrid in his hands for his third shot. He missed the green and short-sided himself, and when he failed to make his 18-foot bogey putt, he walked off the green with a T2 finish at 8-under-par.
With the victory, Kesterson notched his second career AJGA win. But unlike other junior golf tournaments, the ultimate prize for the FootJoy Invitational champion comes in the form of a once-of-a-lifetime opportunity in August.
“It's an honor to be able to play in the Wyndham Championship,” Kesterson said. “I'm just going to go in there for the experience and it's going to be great. The goal is to learn how to play the mental part of that and be more relaxed and confident.”